7 Himalayan Treks that will Take your Breath Away

Long walks lead to magical mountain views.  
A number of icy mountain streams flow along the forested trails leading to Bhabha Pass. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
A number of icy mountain streams flow along the forested trails leading to Bhabha Pass. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

After nearly 20 years of visiting the Himalayas through weather fair and foul, there is one thing I have learnt: apart from the wrong kind of company, nothing kills the majesty of the abode of snow as much as signs of human interference—metalled roads, electric poles, shiny tin roofs, and, saddest of all, mounds of plastic and garbage. Pristine places can be found, though not on four wheels, or two. If you’re willing to give your legs and lungs some exercise, there’s much more to be enjoyed than just views of distant mountains from a hotel window. Here are a handful of treks that will make you see the mountains in a whole new light.

Bhabha Trek, Kinnaur-Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

Along this trek, dense forests of pine and birch, suddenly spill out onto alpine meadows, carpeted in soft green grass and wild flowers. Along the way, one crosses mountain streams flowing down to the Bhabha River, the water sweet and icy. Traverse the 4,865 m-high Bhabha pass to enter the stunning Pin Valley in Spiti, at the border of the Great Himalayan National Park. Campsites vary from a meadow by the river to the base of the pass. Views include snow-covered peaks, Buddhist monasteries, and terraced fields of potato and wheat.
Duration 7 days.
Starting point Kafnoo.
Difficulty level Intermediate.
Season June to October.

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand

You don’t need to know a primula from a dandelion or an annual from a biennial to realise that Bhyundar Valley is a special part of the Himalayas. Once you see the region in bloom, you’ll know why this part of Uttarakhand is called the Valley of Flowers. In season, the hills are carpeted with blue poppies, cobra lillies, and over 498 other varieties of flowering plants. Timing is everything, so plan your visit during the monsoon, when the slopes are vibrant enough to put rainbows to shame.

Duration 4-5 days.
Starting point Govindghat (9 hours from Haridwar).
Difficulty level Easy.
Season July to August.

Hampta Pass, Himachal Pradesh

Treks are rarely so perfect both logistically and in terms of the variety they offer. The Hampta Pass trek takes you through pinewoods, rhododendron forests, open meadows, and a snow-laden 4,300-metre-high pass. An added bonus is interaction with Gaddi shepherds, who still use this trail, once the traditional walking route between the Lahaul and Kullu Valleys. Add an extra day of walking to wind up the journey at the Chandratal Lake and see the scenery change from lush vegetation to high-altitude desert.

Duration 5-10 days
Starting point Jagatsukh (7 km from Manali).
Difficulty level Intermediate.
Season March to April and September to October.

Sandakphu Trek, West Bengal

Sandakphu trek West Bengal

Watching the first rays of the sun wash over snow-capped peaks of Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and Kanchenjunga are the highlights of the Sandakphu trek. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The walk from Maneybhanjang to the denuded plateau of Phalut is tiring but rewarding. Most of the route is on wide trekking trails. Certain stretches are near the border of India and Nepal, so both countries can be seen. When the sky clears during winter (November to February), four “eight-thousander” peaks—Makalu, Lhotse, Everest, Kanchenjunga—are visible in the distant horizon. This view is best from the village of Sandakphu, perched at a height of 3,636 metres.

Duration 4-6 days.
Starting point Maneybhanjang
Difficulty level Intermediate.
Season April to May and October to December.

Roopkund, Uttarakhand

Depending on how many days you have at hand you can begin the trek from Loharjung, Kulling, or even higher up. This scenic trail passes through green and then snow-laden forests, and ends at a lake (frozen in winter) The first leg cuts through pleasant bugyals (alpine grasslands) that are breathtaking and often speckled with horses and shepherd’s huts. The final push to Roopkund Lake usually involves a long walk on snow-filled slopes. The lake has a mysterious past: Fifty-odd years ago, hundreds of skeletons from the 12th century were uncovered here.

Duration 5+ days.
Starting point Loharjung.
Difficulty level Intermediate.
Season June to October.

Markha Valley, Jammu & Kashmir

Jaw-dropping landscapes, two 5,000-metre-high passes (Ganda La and Kongmaru La), Buddhist monasteries, and remote villages are par for the route on this trek. It’s no wonder then, that this trail through central Ladakh is so popular.

Duration 10 days.
Starting point Zingchen (close to Leh).
Difficulty level Intermediate.
Season July to October.

Bara Bangal, Himachal Pradesh

The trek to Bara Bangal is as lonely as it is beautiful, with not a soul in sight aside from the occasional shepherd. Residents of Bara Bangal spend only half the year in the village, clinging to a migratory lifestyle that’s become increasingly rare in the modern world. Photo: Sankar Sridhar

The trek to Bara Bangal is as lonely as it is beautiful, with not a soul in sight aside from the occasional shepherd. Residents of Bara Bangal spend only half the year in the village, clinging to a migratory lifestyle that’s become increasingly rare in the modern world. Photo: Sankar Sridhar

Bara Bangal, Himachal Pradesh
This is a trek of contrasts. Beginning and ending in the popular hill stations of Manali and Dharamshala respectively, it takes trekkers to the lonely village of Bara Bangal. Located between two high altitude passes (over 4,500 m each), this is one of the last remaining places in Himachal whose inhabitants still practice the traditional migratory lifestyle of the Gaddi shepherds. There’s hardly a soul to be met on this unfrequented trek, except for the occasional shepherd and his herd. The views are riveting, ranging from alpine meadows of the softest grass, to gushing rivers, and black moraine broken by glacial lakes.

Duration 11-12 days.
Starting point Manali.
Difficulty level Advanced.
Season June to July and September to October.

Westward Bound

After the scorching summer ends on the western coast of India in June, the monsoon rains work their magic on the Western Ghats, transforming the brown hills into a green paradise for trekkers. The northern part of the ghats (in Maharashtra) are not equipped with trekking huts and guides for multi-day treks like in the Himalayas, but there are several forts and caves to be explored that are just a day trip away from cities like Mumbai and Pune. Unfortunately, most of the slopes are not marked with trekking trails, but there are active trekker communities that organise weekend treks to places like Malshej Ghat, Lohagad Fort, and Harishchandragad.

Appeared in the May 2013 issue as “Scenic Treks”.

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    Sankar Sridhar is a photojournalist who has spent the better part of the past 17 years documenting the lives of the nomadic communities in India. He is the author of "Ladakh Trance Himalaya" (2009). His commendations include the Humanity Photo Awards.

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